Authenticity in “In Dahomey”

One issue Brooks touches on is the issue of authenticity in “In Dahomey” and how it relates to the mixed audience of the play. While Walker claims that the play served as a space for the “natural” black performer, the play was also created for a racially mixed audience that had different notions of what was “naturally” black. White attendees wished to see an “authentic” portrayal of African Americans, i.e. performers in blackface singing and dancing in ridiculous fashion; this audience was fascinated by the “spectacle” of seeing a production created by a company consisting of only African Americans. But the black audience was watching for a performance that portrayed a more realistic interpretation of the African American condition. “In Dahomey,” however, fails to be authentic in the white and black sense due to its nature as a transitional work.

Because “In Dahomey’ functions as a transitional piece, it cannot be fully “authentic” in either the black or white sense of the word. The play caters to a white audience by building the story around an absurd plot: the hunt of two detectives for a silver casket containing a cat’s eye. But it also caters to the black audience in the ways that it mocks the whiteness of “high society” in many of its musical numbers. The effect that this play has on its target audience is confusing because its target audience is the entirety of American society. Williams blacking up can be viewed as either satire of white playgoers or adoption of white performing traditions. The songs can either be seen as expressing satire of white America’s necessity to be the highest members of society or expressing genuine hopes that blacks will one day become members of that high society. The racist treatment of Me Sing can be interpreted as blacks pointing out their ability to be on equal footing as whites or as genuine racist treatment of the Asian American community. Depending which audience one is a part of, this play can either have great meaning or meaninglessness, which is why all the critics hated the play. It is a genuinely confusing production being that it is a transitional piece catering to an extremely wide audience. One cannot search for true authenticity in this play (whatever that may mean) because it is an experiment in theater that aims not for “true authenticity” but to bring black performers to the forefront of theatrical production, which the play ultimately succeeds in.

2 Replies to “Authenticity in “In Dahomey””

  1. I believe this work is partially authentic to both black audiences’ and white audiences’ perceptions of a black theater production, making it on the whole an imperfect yet significant work. It is partially authentic to a black audience because the deeper levels of subtext, especially seen in the subversive cake walk, remain authentic and understood to a black audience, which has a better cultural understanding of the dance than a white audience would.
    Yet, some of its other negative and dated aspects prevent the play from being a work focused upon the true authentic experience. On the other hand, Williams and Walker’s use of blackface makes the work seem authentic to a white audience, checking many of the boxes which they would associate with a play which uses the same styles of minstrelsy. Yet, the white audience only believes this play to be authentic on a purely superficial level, unaware of how the defies expectations and is more indicative of a new form of black artistic expression than a work which only relies on preexisting cultural norms. Because the play tries to be authentic to both audiences, it never fully succeeds in fully satisfying each audience, although the work is still worth reflecting upon because of its status as a key stepping stone towards more authentic forms of African American art, seen two decades later in the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

  2. What is authenticity? I think that is a topic we only touched lightly on in class and one that I would be interested in discussing more. I, personally, do not know what I would define authenticity as. I would even question if anything is authentic, or if most of what we encounter in life is a performance. Perhaps it is possible for a work to have authentic parts without being authentic as a whole. In that sense, from certain perspectives, you could see In Dahomey as attempting to replicate a sense of authenticity for certain groups. What about authenticity affects your reading of In Dahomey? I think that there is a lot to discuss with regards to the authenticity of all of the works that we have read this semester. This idea of authenticity and its impact will certainly be something that I examine more closely as we move forward.

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